By Glenda Cadogan
The first radical change Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr. made as senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC) was to eliminate all existing ministries. It was a move that caused some to clutch their pearls in disbelief but thankfully, the pastoral team stood solidly behind him in this unconventional shuffle. The impetus for this bold realignment centered on what Pastor Mike—as he is affectionately known—calls “reimagining church. I firmly believe that ministry should be need-based and not idea-based,” he told The Positive Community. “A lot of people do things just because ‘that’s what churches do.’ But even back then I knew that if we are to stay relevant, we have to serve based on the needs of the community around us. Therefore, we had to shift from old traditions and find new ways of expressing our spirituality.”
In 2004 when Pastor Mike took the helm, the FCBC congregation numbered 300. The historic, Harlem–based church now boasts membership of 11,000; aninternational streaming audience doubles that size. The saying is that numbers never lie, so it is clear that Pastor Mike’s formula had some magic in it. Not only has the congregation grown exponentially over the past 18 years, but FCBC has also created cutting-edge community programming through its affiliated Community Development Corporation (CDC).
The re-imagined FCBC looks like a place where in Pastor Mike’s words, “There are no come as you are Sundays; it’s come as you are every Sunday.” Among the other avant-garde moves he instituted in his first year at FCBC were: eliminating the pulpit, opting instead for a chair and table; trading his pastoral robe for jeans and a shirt; and hiring a church-based therapist. These actions put him in the headline news and the “big league” of churches, but at the same time crossed some religious conservatives. Pastor Mike was undeterred. His methods were working and without much community outreach, people flooded into the pews at the 89-year old church.
In a post-pandemic world, it begs the question: Where is the Black Church heading? We posed that question to the firebrand minister, who in his freshman year at Morehouse College ditched his dream of becoming a lawyer, walked to the pulpit, and never looked back. “I think we have to be intentional in the way we reimagine church,” he said. “Looking into the future, the model seems to me like a hybrid of some virtual and some in-person services.” Agreeing that Black Church membership was in decline even before the pandemic, Pastor Mike stressed the need for “intentional relevance. The reason we are still growing at FCBC is because we are committed to being relevant,” he said. “You will never become irrelevant if you put the needs of the community first. One of my mentors always told me, ‘You treat the needs of the people as holy.’ So, for our future and survival as an institution, the Black Church needs these two things: a hybrid church experience, and being intentional about the needs of the community around us and not just those who come into the building.”
This drive to serve was not born out of the pandemic experience, but something stitched into the fabric of FCBC more than 10 years ago when the church created the transformative Dream Center and subsequently the H.O.P.E Center (Healing On Purpose and Evolving)—two important organizations serving the Harlem community. At its inception in 2012, the Dream Center (located at 205 West 119th Street) provided creative, cutting-edge programing in areas like cinematography and screenwriting to 10-12-year-olds from the fledgling Wadley Elementary School—programs not necessarily found in the regular curriculum at the time, but providing young people with creative alternative paths to their future. The Dream Center evolved and now primarily focuses on arts enrichment, leadership development, and economic empowerment. Its counterpart, the H.O.P.E Center (located at 228C 116th Street), focuses on mental health and wellness and is the first of its kind in Harlem. Speaking to its origin, Pastor Mike said he noticed, increasingly, people approached his pastoral staff with issues beyond their capacity to handle. “We were referring them to outside institutions until we grew tired of that and hired a therapist,” he said. “Four years later, we opened the H.O.P.E. Center with four practitioners providing free mental health [services] to the community.”
Described by those who know him as a man of passion and compassion, Pastor Mike finds his joy in service. “It’s because I love people,” he remarked adding, “and that makes it so much easier.” His work is also complemented by the fact that his wife of 29 years, Rev. Dr. LaKeesha N. Walrond, serves as president of New York Theological Seminary and worked alongside him for 13 years as the executive pastor at FCBC. Their two children, Michael Waldron III and Jasmyn are also part of the church family.
“I am constantly thinking of the needs of people and how we can do the work we have been called to do as a church,” he said. And that’s the magic of Pastor Mike.